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Bemidvar 5775

Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik
Congragation Kol Shearith Israel

The calendar -with that wisdom that comes from experience- places Parashat Bemidvar (In the desert) which opens the fourth book of the Torah that carries that same name, on the Shabbat immediately preceding the celebration of Hag HaShavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. This connection transcends the time-space coincidence. The proximity between both concepts (the desert and the giving of the Torah) is projected in other dimensions.

There is an evident geographic link. The Torah was given in the desert. The physical freedom determined by the exodus from Egypt was complemented by the acceptance of the Law. If Egypt represents anguish and slavery, the desert is the place where Revelation was possible.

There is a grammatical link. The Torah refers to the Ten Commandments as Aseret Hadevarim (Ex. 34:28), literally meaning the Ten Expressions or the Ten Words. Interestingly, it seems that the words Midvar (desert) and Davar (word) share not only the same root (D.V.R.), but also the same etymology: Words give testimony of the established order, and the desert is possibly the best example of harmony and stillness found in nature. On a different level, we could ascertain that when a word (Davar) does not transform into action, it remains a desert (Midvar).

And there is also a conceptual link. The giving of the Torah took place in the desert. Hearing the word of God requires a particular context. The desert is not only a physical place, but it also represents a place of stillness, silence and harmony. The cacophony of contemporary life seems to be exactly the opposite of that experience in the desert.
In the book “On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism” (published in 1978), the well renowned academic Gershom Scholem presents an interesting teaching by the Hassidic Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov (Poland, end of the XVIII Century and beginning of the XIX Century). He claims that at the foot of Mount Sinai, the people of Israel heard from God’s lips only the first letter of the first commandment, referring to the letter Alef of the word Anohi (I am – Ex. 20:2), which -as we all know- is silent.

The words of the Hassidic master challenge the story found in the Torah which claims that the people heard straight from the mouth of God all the commandments, and only after that did He ask for the intervention of Moses (Ex. 20:19). They also challenge the Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabah 1:2) that states only the first two commandments came from God’s lips, as they are the only ones written in first person). Scholem comments that this paradox (hearing the silent Alef) is the equivalent of hearing nothing, sort of like a preparation to be able to listen to all audible language.

It would seem that the challenge of hearing God’s voice consists of being able to build an inner silence so profound that it allows us to hear even ‘nothing’. We must quiet our voice and our ego in such a way that the metaphor of the desert as a space of absolute stillness becomes our reality. We must partially empty ourselves, renounce the occupation of all our space, to make room for that silent divine voice.

Shavuot recreates the experience on Mount Sinai. It invites us to accept once again the encounter with the divine and to be capable of hearing His voice. On this Shabbat that precedes it, Parashat Bemidvar calls upon us to go into the desert, that space appropriate for sensitizing our minds and our spirits, as a pre-requisite for hearing the divine voice.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach